In 1731, a great fire tore through a house in England that was being used to temporarily hold numerous significant manuscripts, known as The Cotton collection. Thirteen manuscripts perished completely, and many others sustained significant damage. Although efforts were made to piece together the scorched fragments, much of the content in the affected manuscripts remained unreadable.
One text that was partially consumed by the fire was one of four copies of the Magna Carta, which is Latin for “Great Charter.” The Magna Carta was a document of basic rights signed in 1215 by barons of Medieval England and King John as part of an attempt to prevent the King from abusing his power. Today, the Magna Carta is widely recognized as the cornerstone of constitutional law.
This particular copy, known as the “Burnt Magna Carta,” was largely unreadable for more than 280 years, despite numerous attempts to restore it. But now, using a technique called multispectral imaging, a team of conservators and scientists at the British Library (BL) has deciphered the scorched text without damaging it further. This cutting-edge method—which involves using a combination of visible, ultraviolet and infrared light to photograph the document—allowed the team to “virtually peel away the layers of damage,” said the British Library.
Because the chemical make-up of the material varies, different components react differently to the lights. “If you’re interested in the ink, the ultraviolet light gives you the best information. If you are interested in the actual texture of the parchment itself, the infrared would be better,” BL imaging scientist told Live Science. “You end up with multiple images of essentially the same thing, but giving you different information.”
Although the text in each of the copies is virtually identical, according to Julian Harrison, curator of medieval manuscripts at the BL, all of the documents feature differences because they were handwritten.
The four manuscripts will be reunited in February 2015 to mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta.